Denise Bethel is not retiring. That’s the first thing she wants people to know. She’s taking a much-needed breather and shifting gears. After 35 years in the fast-paced auction business – 10 years at Swann Galleries and 25 at Sotheby’s, most recently as chairman of the photographs department – Bethel has stepped down to focus on myriad other projects that have been waiting in the wings.
“The auction business is wonderful. But it is all consuming, and that’s an understatement” says Bethel. “The photography market just keeps growing. If you look at the market on a graph, it’s a straight line up.”
A Virginia native whose roots are revealed in the southern lilt of her speech, Bethel attended Hollins College in Virginia, then the Courtauld Institute in London, earning a masters degree in art history. After a stint working on an NEH grant devoted to Edgar Allen Poe in Virginia, she moved north, joining Swann Galleries in 1980. She was in charge of photographs, prints, drawings, maps, books – you name it, she did it. The Poe Museum in Richmond had daguerreotypes and a smattering of 19th- and 20th-century photographs, so she knew “just enough” about photography to do the job at Swann Galleries.
Once the photographs sales began to grow, though, she specialized in photography, moving to Sotheby’s in 1990. She has been instrumental in bringing a number of important collections to auction there: three sales of work from the Museum of Modern Art; the 1999 sale of the David Feigenbaum collection of daguerreotypes by Southworth and Hawes, which she calls “a revelation;” the 2006 sale of photographs from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which saw The Pond – Moonlight, by Edward Steichen, sell for a record $2,928,000. And Bethel left on a high note: in December, Sotheby’s sale of photographs from The Joy of Giving Something Foundation, a nonprofit founded by collector Howard Stein, brought $21,325,063 and set a number of auction records – for August Sander, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Walker Evans, among others.
Asked if any portion of the market was undervalued at this point, Bethel, a true proponent, didn’t hesitate: “All of it.”
She would know: Bethel began creating an oral history of the photography market in the early 1990s, conducting tape-recorded interviews with dealers and auction house experts. In 1994, she published an article about the beginnings of the photography market in the journal History of Photography, which she plans to expand.
Bethel will, in all likelihood, continue on as a consultant at Sotheby’s, and you will still find her with a gavel in her hand at several upcoming benefit auctions, including Her Justice in May in New York, Atlanta Celebrates Photography in October, and FotoFest in Houston.
And she’ll be giving back in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. “A Virginia Museum scholarship paid for my second year of graduate school,” she says, “and I hope to give back to the museum by volunteering to work with its collection and curator.”